Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Scent-sing My Father

They say -- and I believe it -- that the sense of smell is the biggest trigger for memory.

When I think of my kids when they were little, they were perfumed with baby power and mild shampoo, and a whiff now will bring me back to those early days of parenthood.

Mom? She seemed to whirl in an atmosphere of Jean Nate and vanilla extract, the latter which came into play when she was cooking homemade tapioca, a treat I would now pay a king's ransom for. Nobody made tapioca like her.

My father, however, was Old Spice. And Kiwi shoe polish.

For a while, he was also pipe tobacco, as he took up a pipe to, I suppose, move away from his cigarette consumption at least in theory.

But the shoe polish was a Saturday night ritual for him.

And us.

As Saturday evenings would unfold, he'd grab the shoeshine kit from the back of his closet and take out his Sunday-wear shoes.

With a rag on his finger, he would smear black polish on each one, rubbing the oily paste into the pores of the leather.

And then... Skfff - Skfff - Skfff - Skfff. The brush would do its magical work, making the shoes gleam. He was precise, effective and efficient, as his engineering background led him to be in just about everything he did. I'm sure the training in the Navy didn't hurt, either.

I remember doing it as well. As did my brothers, I suppose. It was as much a Saturday night habit as taking a bath and watching reruns of Sea Hunt and The Honeymooners.

When he passed away in 2006 (has it really been ten years?!?!) and we were removing his belongings (preparations for moving my mother), I came across the shoeshine kit.

And although my care for my shoes had evolved to sloppy polishes with foam applicators and then on to a careless swipe with a paper towel, I decided to keep the kit.

It now resides in the garage, high on a shelf.

But should I have a desire to revisit him in a physical, sensory way... I take it down, like I did tonight to photograph it.

And open that small tin.

And breathe him in through my nostrils.

I love you, Dad. I miss you. And I think of you often.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Throwing in the Towel

"Bless me, Neptune, I have sinned."

"Yes, my son. What is the nature of this sin?"

"I have led my family out of the promised land. I have turned my back on one of your most bounteous gifts. I have blasphemed one of your offspring."

"Oh. In what manner?"

"I... We... Our family..."

"Just say it, lad, You'll feel better."

"We opted for a 2017 vacation that was not Ocean City, NJ..."


That's right. 

This branch of the Weckerly clan chose not to go to Ocean City this year.

Worse, we did have a beach vacation. But rather than the familiar sands of South Jersey, we chose instead the bleached sands of Cancun, Mexico.

The reasons were many. For one, our 2016 vacation in OCNJ was a little bumpy. We opted for closer proximity to the beach, so we took a house on Central Avenue, increasing our budget to accommodate the accommodations.

Our error was in not seeing the place for ourselves. We booked based on Internet info. Which wasn't as forthcoming as we would have liked.

The apartment did put us close to the beach. But it was also a little on the rickety side. The increase in investment didn't really pay off.

Second, we were still saddled with the pack-horse chore of getting to the beach each day. In the heat of the mid-morning sun, each of us loaded up with chairs, towels, sunscreen, books, umbrella, lunch, beach tags, money, iPODs, Kindles, newspapers, games, water bottles and cash.

And if the weather happened to sour while we were there, all that gear had to be reassembled and shlepped back to the house, posthaste.

We also, as tradition holds, braved the Boardwalk a few nights. Played some mini-golf. Ate some Mack & Manco's (corporate rebrand be damned). Bought t-shires. Went out for a "fancy" dinner. Slept in late. Ate too much. Etc. Etc. Etc.

All very enjoyable, but all very standard.

So our Mexican decision was an offshoot of the general feeling about our OCNJ family vacations: Maybe there's something better than this. 

Especially considering the dollar outlay. Couldn't we, we wondered, spend about the same but go somewhere not requiring so much work?

Factor two was in the timing.

Claire, middle daughter, snagged herself a sweet summer job, monitoring corn production as part of an ag project in Lancaster County.

Bad news was that because July and August is prime corn-growing season, her employer asked that no extended vacations be taken during that timeframe.

The Jersey Shore in June sounded awfully chilly to us.

So Mexico it was. We shortened the stay to less than a week, in deference to keeping the cash outlay in the neighborhood of our usual NJ outlay.

The hotel was nice; its all-inclusive setup eliminated a credit-card meltdown along the way. We took one excursion into an underground river, which was unforgettable, and well worth the additional outlay.

We also lined up for meals, ala a cruise line. The food was well prepared and attractively served but nothing spectacular.

But to be fair, The Lobster House in Cape May isn't exactly a five-fork dining experience, either.

In the end, we had a very enjoyable family vacation.


It rained. A lot.

We made due as best we could. Got to the beach while it was relatively dry. Scurried back inside when it poured.

I couldn't help feel the irony of having passed on a beach vacation in Ocean City where we invariably spend time around a table playing Uno... To go to Mexico and spend time around a table playing Uno.

Oh, Neptune.

Thou art a jealous god!


Monday, May 22, 2017

Pinecones and Crabcakes v. Irish Potatoes and Dog Hair

This past weekend, Eileen and I celebrated 29 years of marriage.

That means we have been together more than half our lives... four years more than half our lives, by official count.

That's a long time.

What's the secret?

Well, it's a lot of things: respect, patience, support, connection, unselfishness, faith...

But it's some oddball things, too.

Like pinecones and crabcakes on my half of this relationship.

And Irish potatoes and dog hair on her half.

I'll explain.

It's the little things. The things we do for each other regardless of whether we think they make sense or not. It's the sacrifices, even the small ones.

Or maybe especially the small ones.

Like pinecones. 

Well, to be clear, they're not even pinecones.

They're leaves.

We have a rather colorful comforter on our queen-sized bed. It's a rather country-looking design of vines and branches and fruit and flowers, all done in a very stylized manner, in patterns that repeat across its length and breadth.

One of the leaves has a patchwork pattern on it that makes it look, to me at least, like a pinecone.

And when I make the bed, Eileen likes it in a certain way. 

I argue that the comforter is basically a square and that it can go any which way on the bed.

But she likes it a certain direction. She likes these pinecones when they point upward toward the pillows.

So when I make the bed, even after all these years (the comforter is not 29 years old; I don't know how old it is [she would know, though], but the concept is the same), I think: Pinecones up.

It doesn't matter to me. It matters to her. So I consciously make the effort to get it right.

Make the bed: Pinecones up. Change the linens: Pinecones up.

I have the same relationship with her and crab cakes.

I hate them. I don't like crabmeat at all. But she loves them (the girls do, too). So every so often, I will fry them up for her for dinner. I'll eat something else and delight in her enjoyment of them.

But as with any good relationship, these favors are not one-sided.

On my side, she buys me Irish potatoes each St. Patrick's Day. Despite not liking coconut. 

She also puts up with mountains of dog hair in the house, thanks to Parker. She was never quite the dog person I was, but she agreed to having not only one in the house (RIP, Wesley) but, when he passed, getting another one (hello, Parker).

It's the give-and-take.

And thus far, it has seen us for nearly three decades.

So here's to compromise. The large and the small.

We may not clink champagne glasses to mark the event.

But we may very well bite an Irish potato or a crab cake, respectively. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Scrabbling Around

I am a Scrabble-holic.

I was not born this way; I evolved into a seven-letter, tile-shifting, triple-word-hunting maniac.

My mentor? My mother.

Mom loved Scrabble.

Early in their marriage, Mom and Dad were given a set. The giver clearly thought it was a good idea: Mom loved word games and Dad loved crossword puzzles. What could be better?

As it turned out, though, Dad hated the game.

"It's too slow," he complained. "I can't stand waiting for opponents to lay a word down. It's sit-sit-sit, stare-stare-stare, snore-snore-snore!"

So their communal set was relegated to a closet shelf for decades.

Until I was about eight or nine.

Mom introduced me to the game with Scrabble Junior, where players use letters that are about the size of flooring tiles to spell pre-determined words on the board.

Eventually, though, she graduated me to the real-deal. With utter glee, she would pull down the oblong, maroon box and launch a game.

There were concessions in those early years.

We could, for example, "shop" for letters. If one of us were caught with a Q and no U, for instance, house rules permitted searching through the unused tiles to find the necessary companion to the dreaded solo Q.

And we could "hunt." That meant perusing our huge dictionary for possible plays.

But over the years, we started trimming back on the rule-bending.

Some of my fondest memories are of her and I laying on our bellies on the living room floor, the board between us, records spinning on our stereo console. In summers, the front door would be open, and when a late-afternoon storm would blow through the neighborhood, we'd pause the game, scurry to close all the windows, and resume play, the clack of placed tiles being all but obliterated by the maelstrom outside.

I started occasionally beating her.

And then I started winning consistently.

To make the game more interesting, we would play penny-a-point. After the last word was placed, we'd subtract the loser score from the winner score, and the victor won the difference in cents. Payments were accumulated until they reached a certain level ($20 most often), and I recall being "paid out" in that amount more than once.

It became a great way to save for Christmas shopping, as I recall.

At some point, we upgraded our set to the "delux" version. That meant a board that rotated (before that, I played upside-down, to lessen the chance of letters spinning out of control as play shifted between us).

It was high-class.

One year for Christmas, I bought Mom the Official Scrabble Dictionary, and we dove into the realm of exotic, two-letter words: Qi. Za. Xu, Hm. Sh. Oi.

We'd play on vacations at the shore, with my aunt who had the apartment below us.

And my grandmother teasingly called the game "Scrapple."

By the time I got to college, our mega-matches began to tail off. They went completely on hiatus when I was in London studying.

And by the time I got married and started a family, they were completely in my rear-view mirror.

Sadly, as Mom aged, her memory failed her. Scrabble tourneys were no more.

I will play, though.

An app on my phone allows me to challenge the computer.

And I've found a fan at work. A few weeks ago, I stopped at Target and bought a board. It now sits in our lunchroom, and every so often, he and I will go head-to-head as we eat.

We haven't yet gone penny-a-point.

But maybe someday...

Friday, November 11, 2016

Political Discourse at 1120 Bon Air Road

We have just navigated one of the oddest, most contentious, least traditional election cycles in the history of politics.

And even now that it's over, it's not really over, as "Not My President" protests continue to create havoc in cities across the U.S.

I voted. I'm content with the person for whom I cast a vote. And for how all that eventually worked out, the good and the bad.

But all the public debate and outright anger of politics in 2016 did spark a memory.

My parents were a household divided.

Mom was a devoted Democrat. I think much of that affinity came from her status as a Depression kid. A lot of that generation viewed FDR as a saint and kept the affinity moving forward.

Mom love-l0ve-loved JFK and, from what I'm told (I was too young to remember, although your reading of that statement is indeed correct if it infers that I was alive in November 1963. I was indeed; I was 11 months old), she wept bitterly at his assassination.

Dad, on the other hand, leaned right. I think some of that was attributable to his time in the Navy; after his discharge, he returned to the service as a civilian and launched an engineering career helping with the design of aircraft carriers.

His commander-in-chief during those years was President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican.

As their 1957 marriage continued, they remained peacefully in separate camps. I remember both of them staunchly committing to get to the polling places every four years, if for no other reason but to "cancel each other out."

By the time the Johnson Administration was getting bogged down in Vietnam, things were beginning to get strained in the Weckerly political climate.

Mom's peacenik stance led her to rail against LBJ and what she perceived as warmongering for profit, with no clear exit strategy in place.

Dad, on the other hand, mourned the loss of life. But at the end of the day, the war effort was supplying him with the means to support his family. And although I'm sure he prayed for its quick end, he did so with an eye toward self-preservation.

They never argued politics in front of us. Never once.

What they did do -- and as I remember it was only once a year -- is this: When political rhetoric would begin to thicken between them, they would go to the basement laundry room, pile a few pairs of sneakers in the dryer, turn it on to mask the sound of their voices, and argue their opposite points with rigor and passion.

What they didn't know, or maybe they did but didn't care, is that my brothers and I would scurry to the nearest heat register, open the vents and listen.

I remember not understanding a lot of it, talk of the Gulf of Tonkin and Ho Chi Minh and Tet. 

I also knew that when the discussion ended, it ended. 

The dryer went off. Which was our cue to scamper away from the heat register.

They both climbed the stairs.

And life went on.

All in all, not a bad way of hashing out differences of political opinion.

All we need in the U.S. now, I believe, is a dryer loud enough to mask all the shouting.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Food for Thought

This is a story of shame.

My shame.

Fortunately, I acted on my shamefulness and have committed to moving forward in faith.

But still, it’s a story of shame.

Last summer, I was extremely fortunate enough to be chosen to sing in the choir that would accompany the Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, celebrated by Pope Francis.
It was a deep honor, both as a musician and as a Roman Catholic, and I wrote about it here.

The rehearsal schedule to prep for this Mass was rigorous; each Monday evening for eight weeks or so, I left my office in King of Prussia and drove to the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. There, with dozens of other singers, I rehearsed my part.

The timing meant that I could not accommodate dinner, so I often swung through a nearby Wawa after rehearsal was over, grabbing something to eat and devouring it on the drive home.
As the date of the Papal Mass approached, our rehearsals switched to Verizon Hall, with accompaniment by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

One evening, I left rehearsal, blew through Wawa and walked to the garage where I had parked my car.

As I was about to get in, I looked up and saw him. A homeless man was standing about 20 feet in front of the hood of my car. His face was shrouded in darkness, as the sun had already set.

I heard him ask: “Can you give me something to eat?”

Cards on the table, I was fearful.

I fumbled for my keys, tossed my bag of food on the passenger seat and got in.

He continued to stand there.

I felt safer in the car; I knew it would be only a moment or two before he walked away.

Which he eventually did.

So I jammed the keys into the ignition and pointed my car for the safety of the western suburbs.
When traffic eased, I reached for my Wawa bag.

And a wash of guilt flooded me.

Here I was, preparing for a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis – a pope whose personal embrace of the poor and needy was his hallmark. And I couldn’t see fit to share even a portion of my meal with a hungry stranger.

The hoagie stuck in my throat. The Tastykake tasted rancid. The iced tea became cloying.

I stuck the remains of dinner back in its bag and drove home.

The incident stayed with me. In fact, it’s still with me. I have prayed for that guy… perhaps to lift him up, perhaps to ease my guilt at ignoring him.

I was bothered on a number of levels:

  • My absolute hypocrisy at participating in the Papal Mass while ignoring Christ’s message of care for the needy.
  • My unfounded fear of this guy. So much for “Be Not Afraid.”
  • My inability to see Christ in another person.

Fast-forward to this spring.

I was in Washington, D.C., at an awards luncheon, accepting recognition of our PR work at the office.

The meal was plentiful and was expertly presented, and at the finale, several boxes of cookies were presented to each table.

I was already full. I had had salad, entrée and a dessert. The cookies were an extra.

I took two and slid them into my briefcase. I figured I would release them from their cellophane packaging while commuting back to Philadelphia on the afternoon Amtrak train.

When I left the event, the weather was sunny, and D.C. was looking fine. I decided to walk back to Union Station, rather than cab it.

As I progressed, taking in the sights of the nation’s capital, I saw ahead of me a bus kiosk. And next to it was a woman sitting on the sidewalk with her possessions around her.

What to do?

Was she mentally ill? If I engaged with her, was I in any kind of danger? Should I just keep walking? I don’t know…

I was getting nearer and nearer to her. And struggling. “You need to see Christ in her,” I told myself. “And you need to be Christ for her.”

See Christ. Be Christ.

But still, a thread of fear was present.

As I passed, though, she cinched it: “Do you have change so I can get something to eat?” she called.
Moment of truth.

And then, I remembered my cookies. The cookies that I didn’t need. The cookies that would only have represented a level of gluttony at that point.

So in one, swift motion, I swung my bag atop a nearby news box and snapped it open. Reaching in, I said, “I have something that might be just as helpful.”

I dug around, grabbed the pair of cookies and handed them to her.

“Go ahead,” I said. “They’re still sealed. They’re okay.”

She took them and thanked me.

I closed my bag and walked on.

In retrospect now, I’m somewhat proud that I overcame my fear and reached out. Still, I reached out from my excess and not from my need. And that’s something I’m committing to working on.
Sacrifice isn’t sacrifice unless it represents a gift that’s meaningful, that’s given from the core, that maybe stings just a little.

But the takeway that stayed with me – and that I’m still trying to reflect – is the outlook that drove 
my actions:

See Christ in others. Be Christ for them.

I'm not publishing this story to demonstrate a moral high-ground. Or to witness to my status as a good Catholic. Or a good Christian, for that matter.

Maybe my point is the simplicity of it all:

See Christ.

Be Christ.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Fab Five

A year or so ago, I received as a gift a book by Dr. John Wood: Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Mission (Five Steps to Winning the War Within).

I'm not big on self-help books. 

But this one came from our parish, St. Eleanor, as a Christmas gift. In fact, sufficient quantities were bought for every person who came to Mass for the holy day. Regular parishioners. Guests. And once-a-year drop-ins.

The idea of using this book as a welcoming tool came from our pastor, who is new. And who, frankly, I love. He has arrived at our church brimming with energy and verve, with an electric sense of faith that I admire and a true, living and vibrant reflection of Christ's love and compassion

I struggle with the acceptance of God's love. Not sure why. I think it's generational. The Catholic Church of the mid-1960s was still steeped in a lot of hellfire and damnation. So the idea that God loves me can be difficult for me to grasp. Because my inner dialog keeps channeling all that baloney from elementary school: How wretched we are; undeserving of God's even slightest attention; on the brink of his eternal scorn and punishment; blah-blah-blah.

I'm working on it.

Anyway, among Dr. Wood's recommendations (one of the Five Steps) is to make a habit of daily prayer.

And I thought I was pretty good at that one. But when I started to look deeply, I realized that on most days, I was coming up short. Sure there was "stupid prayer" like, "Oh God, let me get this green light... let me get this green light... LET ME GET THIS GREEN LIGHT!!!" But very little that could be called actual dialog.

So I decided to make it a part of my day. Every day.

Wood talks about identifying a "Faithful Five" (or something like that; I actually forget what he calls them). This is a set of go-to saints who have special meaning and who readers are advised to talk to on a daily basis.

Something about that recommendation resonated with me.

Each day, now, for the past year, during my morning walks with Parker, I call on my Faithful Five -- which I've dubbed my "Fab Five":

  1. Saint Francis, who I ask to bless all beloved animals, to care for those that are neglected, abused, forgotten and abandoned; those in shelters; those awaiting a home. I ask for special care of all animals who work in service and therapy and alongside first-responders and the military.
  2. Saint Augustine, who struggled with the temptations of sin and found the courage to turn away.
  3. Saint Cecilia, patron saint of church musicians. I ask her to bless all those who spark praise-filled song. I ask her to bless me and my colleagues with sharp minds, strong backs, inspired liturgy, nimble fingers and spirit-filled leadership.
  4. Saint Mary, who I petition to bless all families, especially those fighting illness, abuse, estrangement, in-fighting, addiction, financial difficulties and infidelity. I ask her to watch over parents who are caring for ill children or who are concurrently raising their own kids while trying to balance caring for their aging parents.
  5.  Saint Joseph, who I petition to come to the aid of the unemployed and the underemployed.
If nothing else, it reminds me that saints were just regular people who stepped up by works of extreme faith. They didn't float on clouds or coordinate their fashions with their halos. They were hungry, they got tired, they bled, they cried, they danced at weddings, drank wine, sewed ripped seams in their tunics, fought with siblings, stubbed their toes and stepped in camel poop.

Just like us.

...although I'm not sure I've ever stepped in camel poop.

Who would your Fab Five be? Why not chat them up every now and then?